Ditzy Druid Goes Shopping: Growing Mushrooms with Back to the Roots

For this Ditzy Druid Goes Shopping Entry, I’m going to put aside my usual format because this is more of a product review.

The Wild Center that I visited recently has one of the nicest gift shops.  In addition to some of the usual things you’d expect (mugs, shot glasses, and tshirts), it boasts a huge collection of naturalist literature, decor and gifts made by local artisans, and various things made of recycled materials.  In addition, there are also kits to help you enjoy nature in new and interesting ways, like a flower-press kit, a birdwatching kit for kids, and similar things.  None of these are inherently necessary.  A creative person can look at them and figure out how to do it at home or in the classroom without spending extra money.

But something caught my attention – a mushroom growing kit from Back to the Roots.  I have seen various kits advertised in seed catalogs and on environmentally themed blogs, but I had never seen one in person.  I decided to purchase the kit and give it a try.  It was cheaper than those advertised in catalogs and, instead of using wood chips, utilizes old coffee grounds that the company’s founders collected from restaurants and cafes.  Despite my usual attitude of “Oh, I could do that…,” mushrooms are not something I want to experiment with lightly.  I’ve never taken a mycology class, never went out with an experienced forager…  People die from choosing the wrong shroom.  And then of course, growing them seems even more surreal.  A kit (especially one that boasts how kid-friendly it is) seemed like the best way to learn!

The contents of the kit are a box (made of recycled cardboard and soy ink), a little plastic spray bottle (reusable), a sheet of instructions, and the plastic bag filled with old coffee grounds and white roots called mycelia.  The bag will have to be tossed in the trash, and the reusable spray bottle will no doubt break in the distant future, but the kit is still pretty impressive as far as packaging and sustainability go.  Their FAQ says that when the mushrooms have depleted the nutrients in the bag, the contents can be added to compost or pots.  Replacement bags can be purchased without additional boxes and watering bottles.

In addition to the instructions in the box, there are instructional videos on the website (there’s also this great video that gives further background).  You begin by cutting a cross into one side of the bag.  You then take the bag out of the box and soak it in water for about 24 hours.  From there, you put it in indirect light and mist it twice a day.  Supposedly, you should see growth in 10-15 days.  For us…  it took about 30.

After 30ish days…mushrooms at last!

But the mushrooms didn’t mature easily. We misted twice a day as prescribed but the mushrooms dried up.  We were about to abandon the project when we noticed more baby shrooms sprouting.  One bunch grew to an impressive size and we actually got to harvest a good handful.  I used them in a stir fry.  I hadn’t ever tried oyster mushrooms before, but they were some of the most amazing, delicious tasting fungi I’ve ever had!

They grew!

Unfortunately, that was the only bunch we got to harvest and taste.  We never got the promised 10 lbs.  Shortly after our stir fry, the remaining buds dried up.  We tried to water them more which resulted in mold.  Ick.  We had to toss the batch and call it quits.

Now, Back to the Roots guarantees success.  We did get mushrooms, but not the amount we hoped and not as quickly as they said.   They have a customer service contact and will replace kits when mushrooms don’t grow…  but we did eventually get growth so I opted not to call.  My feeling is that we were doing something wrong.  Perhaps they were in a poor environment.  We grew them in our kitchen – an alternately hot and moist place.  Perhaps the heat of the stove and heaters over the winter dried them.  Perhaps moisture from the sink reached them, or steam from cooking, resulting in mold?  I don’t really know.  They spent some time in a northern-facing window – so perhaps that was too much sunlight for them?  They grew better when I moved them to the counter…

I’m definitely openminded to try again – with this kit or any other.  Even though our harvest was tiny, the mushrooms we were able to eat tasted amazing and the process was a lot of fun!  I’m sure kids would enjoy watching their box of coffee grounds transform into a makeshift mushroom log.  It’s definitely a satisfying activity for a gardener during the winter months.  Finally, the work Back to the Roots is doing to make this process sustainable is applaudable and worthy of support.

Kits can be ordered online from Back to the Roots (currently for $19.95 + shipping)  and at Earth Easy (currently $16.95 + shipping – yay sale!).

6 thoughts on “Ditzy Druid Goes Shopping: Growing Mushrooms with Back to the Roots

  1. A great way is to find a foraging course to attend with someone who can teach you about which fungi are edible in the wild.

    1. Trust me, I’ve been looking! There was a course available at my college when I was doing my undergrad, but it was only available to bio majors. A good friend of mine took it but, even so, she doesn’t feel competent enough to forage for food. We keep talking about going out and at least trying to identify some. She enjoyed taking spore samples! Have you had a chance to take such a course?

      1. There are foraging events held in my town of Colchester, though I have yet to attend one.

  2. Mushrooms are actually pretty tricky to grow. These kits are a good intro, but they sadly oversimplify. I’ve studied cultivation personally with Paul Stamets at Fungi Perfecti and tried his kits with similar results to yours… flimsy growth. When applying “real” growing techniques in a chamber (a plastic box connected to an automated humidifier) amazing growth results. Its still not too hard, but quite a bit beyond what the kits promise. I still think these things are great, to give people “the bug” but they really should be more honest about the results. In short, most edible species want very high humidity to fruit, humidity so high that it would likely damage the home.

    If you want hassle-free “natural” growth, you need to look into log culture. Shiitakes and oysters are both great for this. They will still need some care and feeding, but less than indoor kits, and will last longer.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts and wisdom! I’ve seen those log kits in seed catalogs, and they’re a little intimidating! I would like to try them one day when I’m no longer renting. I’m not sure it would be easy in my apartment… Which is probably another selling point of the box kits – great for people who live in small spaces.

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